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Our Favorite Trees for Containers

Even if all you have as "landscape" is a patio or balcony, you can grow a tree. That’s where containers come into play. Read on to learn the secrets to success for container-grown trees.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Andi WG

Decorate Your Patio With Container Trees

The landscapers' maxim, "The right tree in the right place" — and, we might add, the right conditions — goes for potted trees, as well.

First, the tree. Whether they're deciduous or evergreen, producing fruit or merely looking nice on your patio or in your home, many container-suitable trees have dwarf varieties or are naturally small, so choose accordingly. At any rate, unless you’re growing a bonsai tree, you need a container large enough to accommodate the mature size of the tree. A large, heavy pot will be best for a tree that will remain in place all year. If it’s a tree that will be moving seasonally between indoors and out, you will want to consider a lighter weight container. And whatever the case, make sure the pot’s bottom has holes for drainage.

A tree — such as the crape myrtle pictured — is a long-term investment, so don’t skimp on the soil. Use a good potting mix that holds sufficient moisture but that also drains well. Do not use soil from the garden. While it works for in-ground planting, garden soil may not drain well enough in a container, and there likely will be weeds, insects or diseases in the soil. Refresh the container in spring by removing some of the top layer of potting mix and replacing it with new. A slow-release fertilizer, applied following package directions, provides the needed nutrients.

Click through to find a dozen ideas for trees that can grow in containers, and what they need to thrive.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Alonia

Japanese Maple

In many landscape designs, the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) has a starring role. A well-chosen dwarf variety can play a part in a patio or balcony garden as well.

Light: Full sun to part shade, depending on the variety.

Size: Dwarf Japanese maples typically range from 6 to 10 feet at maximum height.

Hardiness: These are deciduous trees, so they’ll lose their leaves in winter. But a well-chosen tree (one that thrives in your hardiness zone) should be fine if it remains outdoors in its container.

Best Care Practices: Give the roots plenty of room to grow by planting in a container at least twice as wide as the root ball. Provide consistent moisture, but don’t overwater the tree. Fertilize in spring with a liquid solution at half-strength. Remove dead or dying branches; otherwise, pruning is usually not necessary.

Popular varieties: 'Crimson Queen' (Zones 5-8) has finely cut dark crimson leaves in summer; 'Rhode Island Red' (Zones 5-9) has bright red foliage in spring, orange tones by fall, and red stems that add color to a bare landscape in winter; 'Viridis' has bright green leaves in summer, and autumn leaves turn crimson and gold.

how to grow japanese maples

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Photo: Shutterstock/Studio Light and Shade

Citrus Trees

If you’re in certain parts of Florida, Arizona, Texas or California, you can grow lemons, limes and other citrus trees (such as tangerine, pictured) in your backyard. The rest of us must plant them in pots so we can bring them in out of the cold when temperatures plunge.

Light: All citrus varieties are bright light/full sun trees.

Size: Dwarf varieties are best for containers. Even these trees, which might mature at 6-12 feet in a suitable climate outdoors, can be kept at a smaller height in a pot.

Hardiness: Citrus trees are damaged by freezing weather so they are indoors-in-winter plants in most of the US.

Best Care Practices: Start with a 10- to 12-inch diameter container, knowing that you’ll need to re-pot into a larger container later for long-term growth. Citrus trees need well-drained soil; commercial potting mix is fine as long as the soil is light enough to drain water well. Fertilize in spring. A granular plant food formulated specifically for citrus is the best choice. Watch for pests such as mealybugs, aphids and scale, and treat affected plants as soon as you discover them.

Varieties: 'Improved Meyer Lemon' fruits are generally smaller, rounder, slightly sweeter and less acidic that typical supermarket lemons. 'Lisbon' lemon tree produces small to medium size fruit that has a tarter, more acidic flavor. 'Kaffir' lime fruit has distinctive green, bumpy skin and leaves that are segmented, with each resembling two attached leaves. The leaves are used in many Asian dishes. 'Bearss' lime (aka Persian lime) is a common variety that bears seedless fruit.

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Photo: Shutterstock/DimaBerlin


Once you’ve mastered lemons and limes, it's easy to add another, less common citrus to your container-tree collection. Kumquat’s white flowers in spring produce small, sweet fruit that ripens into winter.

Light: Full sun is a must. You likely will need to provide supplemental lighting indoors.

Size: This broadleaf evergreen tree (Citrus japonica) is naturally on the smaller size, and varieties grown on dwarfing rootstock may grow 3 to 6 feet.

Hardiness: Kumquat tends to be more hardy than other citrus, but it’s still an indoors-in-winter tree everywhere except USDA Hardiness Zones 9 and 10.

Best Care Practices: Select a container slightly larger than the plant’s root ball and expect to re-pot the tree as it grows larger. Use a good potting mix that drains well; water regularly but don’t overwater because kumquat will suffer if the soil stays soggy. Fertilize with a product formulated for citrus, starting in the spring. The tree will benefit from being outdoors in summer, where bees can pollinate the flowers. Indoors, you can hand-pollinate using a soft brush.

Varieties: Kumquat fruit can be eaten unpeeled. C. japonica 'Nagami' is a thornless variety that produces deep orange, oval fruit; 'Meiwa' fruit is round and has sweeter pulp; 'Marumi' is slightly thorny, with round fruit that is more acidic.

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